Each week, Justin Bourne’s column will cover three different topics in varying depths. Think of it as a three-course meal with an appetizer, main course, and dessert…
Appetizer: It’s not too late to change the shoes
During our daily conversations on Hockey Central, Brian Burke has taken a consistent stance on the NHL’s return-to-play plan, which can be summed up thusly: The plan is a stunningly beautiful woman, and we’re sitting around criticizing her shoes. An apt use of metaphor, I’d say.
That said, if you’re paid to talk about this playoff format 10 hours a week, the metaphorical shoes are gonna come up. So, before we get into the meat of today’s meal, one last comment on those shoes, which leave a near-perfect outfit wanting.
The NBA just approved a return to play format that brings back 22 teams (which is everyone who had a reasonable shot at the playoffs), and sees those teams play eight more “regular season” games each before the eight and nine seeds contest a play-in series to crack the post-season.
The format for that play-in series is – drum roll please – weighted. The eight-seed will have to beat the nine seed just once to lock-in their playoff spot. The nine-seed can still upset the eight-seed…by beating them twice.
It just makes so much sense. You award an advantage to the team that’s earned a higher standings position over thousands of regular season games, while letting the closest challenger at least have a crack to show they’re more deserving of that spot.
The NHL’s best-of-five play-in series could’ve used some tilting in favour of the five and six seeds (versus the respective 12 and 11 seeds), and I’m not sure who would’ve argued. Maybe it’s not too late for the league and players to make that tweak. Maybe it is. In the end, I generally like what the NHL has done and think they’ve created some high-stakes high-drama hockey, which I’m sure is at the heart of the goal for them. It’s all just so close to perfect I thought it worth one last mention.
Main course: Answer to the question “Is returning for hockey worth it” matters most in the big picture, as individual answers will vary
A few days ago Anton Stralman made some comments that got me thinking about just how varied each player’s circumstances are in this time of relative isolation. Stralman posed a question of if it was “worth it” to return to play, the answer to which would vary greatly around the league.
From that piece by Joe Smith:
But Stralman wonders: “Is it worth it?”
“I think you should be concerned,” Stralman said. “There are so many ways to look at this thing. I know everybody wants hockey back, but safety has to come first. And it’s a little bit worrisome, I can’t deny that. Even though most players are young and healthy, I’m sure there are players like me that have underlying health issues. I don’t know how my body will react if I get this virus.”
Stralman has dealt with bronchiectasis, which prevents mucus from being cleared from his lungs, since early in his career. It was finally detected during the Swede’s time with the Rangers, and he just got off the medication in the past year.
I’d say the answer to “Is it worth it?” for him is a pretty unequivocal “no.”
Stralman will turn 34 on August 1, which could potentially coincide with a re-opening of training camps.
Talking to people around the hockey world last night and this morning, it sounds like the league's target date to open NHL camps is now being pushed from mid-July to Aug. 1.
— Eric Francis (@EricFrancis) June 4, 2020
Stralman has earned north of $34 million in his career to date and is scheduled to make $11 million more. He has a wife and four children between the ages of eight and 13. He’s currently in his home country of Sweden and plays on a team that’s a 10-seed heading into a potential play-in series. And again, he’s got an underlying health condition that affects his lungs.
If you dial the microscope out from Stralman to the greater NHL, though, you’ll find no shortage of players whose situations look worlds different from that. Career earnings of $34 million are not common, years of comfortable earning ahead are not common, and escrow has done some damage (and threatens to do much more) to many players. Whatever you think of the comfortable living players earn, you can be sure the bulk of guys would like to play so they could keep more and make more in the future. The majority of players are in North America right now and are young and healthy. For many of them, forfeiting a real shot at a Stanley Cup is not a small price.
Whether it’s worth it or not certainly varies depending on where you sit.
These are important questions, though, and Stralman is 100 per cent right in asking it, given the answer is bigger than “Most guys want more money and a Stanley Cup.” There are workers involved in putting on a hockey game beyond those the camera usually focuses on. There’s concern about prioritizing pro athletes over society at large when it comes to testing, though the league has said it’s making avoiding that a priority. The simple end point for some people on safety is “If you just don’t play, you don’t risk more people getting sick.”
It’s tough to contend with that point morally. I think partially because it’s so hard to quantify what can be lost by not playing.
If they don’t come back to play, what’s the damage done to the health of a business that brings in some $4 billion dollars annually, and in turn all the people it keeps afloat? Owners aside, a lot of people depend on the NHL for more meager incomes than the players. If other leagues return to play and the NHL doesn’t, will it take a larger hit in the public consciousness, a space which already offers a staggering number of competing entertainment products? Is there a mental health element to returning to play for not just those immediately involved, but the fans who swear by it?
There’s a lot of concerning questions here that end in “Well, we’re not really sure.”
Sitting here today the question is so tough because we can’t yet see the outcomes on the other side. We’re just left to best guess if it will have been worth it when we look back years from now. It’s certainly not going to be deemed worth it if a return leads to a large outbreak. But if there’s a safe way to pull it off with minimal negative impact (in terms of COVID-19 spread), the league surely will be pleased with its decision.
Stralman’s question doesn’t seem like a guy saying “I don’t think this is worth it for the league.” To me it’s just someone asking a big picture question that has different answers depending on where you focus the microscope.
But the decision needs to be made without a microscope at all, and pretty high up in the sky, too. By and large, what’s the best thing for the individuals, the NHL, and the game of hockey as a whole? It’s impossible to say where we’ll be by the time they want to ramp things back up in August. We’ll never have guarantees, but given global trends, it sure seems like we’ll be able to answer “Is the NHL returning to play in August worth it” with a “yes.”
Dessert: Diversity and the women’s game
Speaking of trends in hockey, Sportsnet was fortunate to have two guests on this week who hit on major issues in our sport (and the world) today: the women’s game and diversity.
Even if these are not the sort of interviews you tend to seek out, I implore you to listen to these two women discuss issues pertinent to hockey today. They were excellent and extremely informative. Kim Davis (the NHL executive vice president for social impact, growth initiatives and legislative affairs) spoke with Jeff Marek and Elliotte Friedman about race and hockey here:
The NHL’s Kim Davis on the need for ‘uncomfortable conversations’
And Cassie Campbell-Pascall explained the state of women’s hockey, and the potential for the NHL to get involved with a WNHL at some point in the future. I got the impression it’s not too far down the line, though that’s not said explicitly. Check Cassie out here at 54:30: